Behind the scenes with Tennessee recruiting

January, 15, 2009

At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning I drive from Nashville to Knoxville to check on the new Tennessee staff. Having spent two years around UT recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron when he was coaching at Ole Miss as I worked on "Meat Market," it feels like déjà vu. Only now he's bouncing around a football office wearing this impossibly Day-Glo orange Vols fleece; the war room is three times bigger and legendary defensive coach Monte Kiffin is sitting at the table. Oh, and there are no Red Bulls or Slim Jims in sight.

On this day, Orgeron is running the show, since he is UT's recruiting coordinator and we're in prime recruiting season. Plus, new Vols head coach Lane Kiffin is with his wife, who on Tuesday night had given birth to an 8-pound, 8-ounce boy named Monte Knox Kiffin. (They're calling him Knox, and I suspect that is playing well on the UT fan boards.)

The staff meets at 10 a.m. to update where they are for this weekend's list of official visitors. There are 10 prospects coming in. Orgeron asks the staff about each recruit to make sure they have the details: What is the guy's intended major? Are some family members coming along? What are the names of those people? How do you spell Grandma's name? Getting a handle on the player's personality is another assignment he has for the coaches who have visited with the prospect.

At 10:28 a.m., four men from a recruiting service come into the Vols' war room toting a fancy red laptop and begin to make their presentation to Orgeron and the rest of the UT staff, showing a host of recruiting videos while explaining their system. The company is one of many that try to cater to major college staffs by selling high school game footage and player cut-ups. These businesses are different from the online recruiting services that most fans surf to find out which blue-chipper might be visiting their favorite school every other weekend. As one of the men explains, they are not in the reporting business.

After a few players are shown, Orgeron, UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and assistant coach David Reaves clearly aren't impressed by the talent level.

"O.K., lemme back up," Orgeron says, without turning back to face the recruiting guys running the video from the back of the room. "We are at Tenn-uh-SEEEE! We wanna see TOP players."

I recognize this tone. Orgeron doesn't actually raise his voice, but you can tell his patience is waning. At this moment, I'm rooting for the recruiting guys to put on some Ray Lewis-type prospect.

Instead, it's a small running back who is supposedly a track guy. He appears to be a better prospect, but judging from the reaction of the room, not what this Tennessee staff should be chasing.

The film session lasts for almost 90 minutes before Orgeron thanks his guests for coming. The Vols' staff does get to observe a handful of blue-chippers, although they are all for either the 2010 or 2011 classes.

Later, Orgeron, Reaves, Chaney and line coach James Cregg watch film of several top QBs and running backs from the 2010 class. One of the backs we see might just be the top tailback recruit in the country next year, Reaves suggests. I am blown away by the film of another one of the backs, who makes you say "Wow!" on three successive plays by showcasing a speed burst that makes everyone take bad angles as he tight-ropes the sidelines. It is also very interesting to hear Chaney -- the former Purdue assistant who helped groom Drew Brees -- evaluate the quarterbacks, dissecting whether a guy pushes the ball or throws it, as well as who is completing passes well downfield and who is throwing tail-draggers.

There is so much work to do, Orgeron later explains. There are several prospects on the Vols' recruiting board that he told he was going to offer two years ago when he was at Ole Miss. Most of the players Orgeron covets have been committed to other powerhouse programs for months. It's almost impossible to get back in on most of them. The operative word there being "almost." Lord knows he and the Kiffins are going to try. It also helps that Reaves, a former South Carolina assistant, has a strong rep as a recruiter as well, and more ace recruiters are expected to be named to the UT staff soon. (Lance Thompson, Alabama's linebacker coach and arguably the top recruiter on Nick Saban's staff, met with the UT brass Monday night in Nashville.) Whether the Vols can put together an elite recruiting class remains to be seen. Overcoming a coaching change is never easy for a college program. In many ways, this staff is playing catch-up on the 2010 crop, next year's class, so expecting wonders for 2009 isn't realistic. There are, however, a couple of slightly under-the-radar gems they think they're in on, and a few big names seem intrigued.

The challenge now is to get back in the chase while also overhauling a Tennessee recruiting system that is very different from what Kiffin and Orgeron want.

The year away from the college game only seems to have made Orgeron hungrier. I listen to him talk about being on the road in the Deep South with Monte Kiffin, and he is as fired up as I've ever seen him. The guy who loves The Chase more than any person I've ever met has been invigorated. Still, the landscape of the SEC has changed quite a bit in the past three years. Florida is flying higher than ever. Nick Saban has Alabama soaring, too. Auburn and Tennessee are rebuilding. The team Orgeron had just built, the Ole Miss Rebels, might be a preseason top-10 squad come August. Can the Kiffins and Orgeron get the Vols back to the mountaintop? I'm fascinated to see this thing play out. I know this: One way or the other, it won't be boring.


• I am glad to be home in L.A. The last part of my trip was in Tennessee, where I spent most of my time in Nashville at the football coaches' convention, at which there are intriguing stories all over the place.

• Few college players have the juice to ever sit in on a job interview, but that just goes to show the depth of Tim Tebow's imprint on the Florida program. Sources say the junior QB sat in for as much as six hours of the interview process when Urban Meyer met with potential quarterback coaches a few weeks ago. Tebow's gym-rat persona and intelligence, I'm told, wowed the interviewees.

• There is a lot of pressure on former blue-chipper Stephen Garcia in 2009. It's basically "Garcia or bust" for Steve Spurrier this year, apparently. Tommy Beecher isn't coming back to the program, Chris Smelly has transferred to Alabama and will play baseball there, and the two young QBs whom South Carolina redshirted this past season are said to be a long way from being ready to play in the SEC.

• Don't be surprised if Auburn coach Gene Chizik doesn't try to hire Colorado O-line coach Jeff Grimes, whom I heard the new Tigers coach is very impressed with.

• The Penn State D-line could be decimated. Not only does JoePa lose Aaron Maybin and Mo Evans to the NFL early, but coach Larry Johnson might end up at Illinois, reports Jeff McLane:

"With Evans and Maybin gone, the Lions will have to rely on some untested underclassmen to fill their shoes. Jack Crawford and Kevion Latham are the leading candidates, along with senior-to-be Jerome Hayes, who is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Their guidance could come from another source as Johnson is flirting with Illinois. Penn State's top recruiter, the 57-year-old is reportedly being offered the defensive coordinator position with the Illini and a significant raise."

• I had a chance to visit with Oregon offensive whiz Chip Kelly in Nashville and will have more on his QB Jeremiah Masoli in the next few days in the blog, but saw this post from colleague Ted Miller about the Ducks' QB as a Heisman hopeful in 2009 and thought it was cool.

• Could Luke Fickell, the Ohio State D-line coach, end up at Notre Dame? Doug Lesmeries throws it out.

• Former UF QB Cam Newton, whose legal issues over possession of a stolen computer should be cleared up in the next few weeks, is headed to Blinn JC in Texas, writes David Jones.

I've heard one possible scenario Newton is considering is spending one season there in Texas and then reuniting with former Florida OC Dan Mullen and running the Mississippi State offense.

• To answer a question from a reader on the over/under of how many Chick-fil-A trips were made over the past month: It was well under eight. I think it was only three.


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